The doctor is talking seriously and sensibly enough about alcoholism as a problem for the entire family -- "Families get sick together and, to get well, they have to get well as a family."
Then Big Ruby bursts on the scene, tackling a visitor in a bear hug to a bosom that can only be described as ample, patting her stomach to show the weight she's gained on the good food in an alcoholic treatment center.
"I look seven months pregnant, and that would be something, wouldn't it, honey? I'm 66 years old." The gutfaw fills the hotel suite as Big Ruby Folsom Austin is into being her warm, natural, overwhelming self, unchanged with or without booze.
It is Act One of a morning with Big Ruby and daughter, Cornelia Wallace, the ex-wife of former Alabama gov. George Wallace.
Mother and daughter are hitting Washington's radio and "TV and newspapers to tout the drying out wonders of a Pensacola treatment center called the Friary. And in the process getting back in the limelight.
"Big Ruby is the alcoholic and Cornelia is the copatient" explains treatment director and psychiatrist Dr. Ron Catanzaro. In sweeps the copatient, handsome in cherry red silk. Cornelia Wallace's words are stifled by the set, clenched-teeth smile she is offering to the photographer. Big Ruby's smile is also as frozen as a "TV dinner and the photographer despairs. For once in her life Big Ruby is not relaxed.
"I was at the clinic for three weeks when the papers had this picture of me and Lord, I never looked that bad when I was on a tear . I went through one face lift. Cornelia dragged me into that when I was 61. But after that picture, maybe I need another.
"I was an old woman before I started drinking, but it sort of runs in the family, although Momma ran a fine Christian house and had to borrow the wine for the fruitcake," Big Ruby rambles on, after the photographer leaves.
"Drunk? I hate the word. I've been tight but not drunk. 'James' and I have a hollow leg." Big Ruby is probably the only person in the world who refers to her legendary brother, former Alabama gov. Kissin' Jim Folsom, as "James." When Folsom's wife died, Big Ruby moved into the mansion to act as her brother's hostess, started sipping champagne and graduated to bourbon and branch water. She was twice-widowed, and her drinking got "progressively worse" in later years.
For the past several years, Big Ruby held forth in her white-columned Montgomery home, where the free-flowing liquor and talk were the source of consternation to daughter Cornelia, as reporters picked up every tidbit about turbulent times in the George Wallace mansion from Big Ruby.
"It's important to Momma's sobriety for her to come out of the closet," says Cornelia Wallace. "And it's such a relief not to have to worry about somebody finding out anymore."
Says Big Ruby: "I have so many alcoholic friends. If I can help just one, it will have been worth my time." "Gone With the Wind"
The latest chapter in the Faulknerian "Gone With the Wind" world of the Folsoms and the Wallaces, needs a reprise. When last heard from, George and Cornelia were divorced, a year and a half ago.
The divorce was an anticlimax to headlines that had telegraphed every soupcon of domestic discord that included a wife bugging her husband's phone conversations.
Two years ago September, Cornelia Wallace packed her belongings into a small blue van and moved out of the mansion saying she had had it with her six-year marriage. "I can no longer endure the vulgarity, threats and abuse," she said.
The previous fall, Gov. Wallace had acknowledged that he discovered his wife bugging his telephone.
"For all practical purposes my marriage was gone," Mrs. Wallace had said, to explain why she bugged her husband's phone. She wanted to find out who was "spreading destructive rumors" about her.
"Any rewards of closeness were just totally destroyed because of all that had been said. I wanted to find out who my accusers were. It turned out that some of them were women who would like to be in my place -- who hate me and would like to see me gone. I slipped into a right unpopular place when I married George Wallace."
She also said that the governor's brother, Gerald, "spread rumors that I had slept with every state trooper around." Her brother-in-law denied the allegation;
Yesterday, Cornelia Wallace, 40, cleared up one mystery -- why she had settled for only $75,000 when it was her husband who wanted and sued for the divorce.
"Right in the middle of the divorce, the Justice Department wrote me a letter demanding copies of the tape. After that I didn't have anything to fight with. I would have just run a bluff until I ran it out, but once I got the letter it was over. I just didn't have a case after that." Cornelia Wallace said she couldn't fight the Justice Department and George Wallace, too. "They said I couldn't use the tapes in divorce proceedings but it had been ruled in a previous Alabama case that tapes were admissible."
Cornelia Wallace says she has filed a malpractice suit against her lawyer and a civil rights suit against the Justice Department regarding the divorce proceedings, She seems vague about how much time and money she will put into pursuing her case.
George Wallace, so it seemed to one observor, had always been dependent on Cornelia. "I thought that too," she says with a wry smile, and a small shrug. "You'd think if someone needed you that much you'd be in like Flynn," she says, wistfully.
Ruby Folsom interjects how bad Wallace looks these days, without Cornelia -- especially after Wallace was shot and crippled by a would-be assassin in a Maryland shopping center during the 1972 presidential primaries.
"They assumed I had a power and influence. They thought I was a threat -- when I was really no threat to them."
The Folsoms were a name in Alabama politics long before Wallace, whom Big Ruby speaks of as decidedly low-rent, came on stage.
When Cornelia once confided during her courtship with Wallace, "I got the only bachelor in Montgomery, and I'm scared to death Mamma's gonna go after George," Big Ruby sniffed, "Shoooot, honey. He ain't even titty high."
Big Ruby guffaws as she remembers that today, then looks angry as she remembers that inglorious moment when her brother slurred his words and appeared drunk and crowed like a rooster on TV when he was seeking reelection.
To this day, Big Ruby insists her brother was drugged. "If they hadn't sabotaged my brother on TV, George never would have been governor. That like to kill me. Drunk or sober, I tell it like it is,"
Cornelia and George were married around the time of his 1971 inauguration, a year and four months before he was shot. Today, the little man who roared out of the South and once electrified crowds across the country and dreamed of being president is now raising money for rehabilitation services for the state of Alabama. The Cure
The joint interview tumbles on, as Big Ruby and Cornelia interject and interrupt and explain. "This is the third time I got mother to treatment. I had washed my hands of the whole thing, had left Montgomery and was working on a book in Florida -- really to get away from her drinking. But she created a crisis to get me back." That's when Cornelia brought her mother to the clinic.
Through the work at the Friary, Cornelia "became aware of the role I was playing in her alcoholism. I was her rescuer; took care of her. Even played mother to her daughter." She created the cushion that enabled Big Ruby to continue to drink.
In the six-week course (at $4,200) the alcoholic and family members are treated to learn how they interact and to break down patterns that encourage the alcoholism. Big Ruby and Cornelia are following other famous political families in this sort of cure -- from Wilbur and Polly Mills to Betty Ford and her family.
The treatment is called "familization therapy".
"For years the alcoholic was the "sickie" and the family was the "wellie." That isn't the way they can be most effectively treated," says Dr. Catanzaro.
For several months before the treatment, there was an interdependence of depression, Cornelia was worried about her mother's drinking -- and Big Ruby worried about Cornelia after her divorce: "It's been rough. I like to worry myself to death about her. And that didn't help my drinking problem." What Next?
Cornelia Wallace is between engagements these days. As she settles into the cab en route to the "Panorama" show, she says that after picking Tandy Rice, Billy Carter's agent for public appearances, "nothing workable ever came out of that." Big Ruby butts in: "People came around day and night and said, "Oh Cornelia, you ought to do this and that." I wanted her to get with it. But she turned everything over to that Tandy." Her face registers monumental disgust.
Negotiations have broken down, says Cornelia, with a publisher on her second book, a decidedly roman a clef, with a central figure like her uncle and a "character like George Wallace who comes in later and topples this giant." But she is serious about writing it, "even if it never gets published."
"I needed a year to readjust from getting out of that style of living and the pressures of public life. Going with mother for this treatment really had some fringe benefits for me. It's given me a sense of who I am, without all the George Wallace business. You just know more about yourself. For me it hangs with a lot of personal integrity, honesty; I guess that thing of being true to oneself. The same thing happened to Joan Kennedy. You get caught up in politics." She stops. "I didn't feel I had an identity crisis ever but I had lost touch with parts of myself."
Big Ruby volunteers from the front seat of the cab: "I know. I've been there. Politics can be quite a letdown. You'd be surprised at the friends who love and admire you but, Lord, they'll drop you like a hot cake when they can't use you."
Cornelia Wallace was frankly terrified about going it alone at the time of her divorce but now says she is "more confident and stronger about herself."
Did she ever worry that people wouldn't like her for herself? "I never felt that way in my whole life until I got divorced from George. People thought of me as first lady of Alabama, they couldn't think of me going barefoot on the beach. That I could cook my own breakfast. I'd been driving around in a limousine and they didn't think they could pick me up in an old pickup truck, but that's what I like, The plain things."
Her friends today are the friends she had before she knew Wallace.
Big Ruby has frankly been looking for a third husband for some time now. "I had two boyfriends since Dr. Austin died, but I don't have anyone now." She guffaws again. "What did that one paper call my boyfriends, factotums!"
Big Ruby has silver hair, is 5 feet 10 1/2 inches "barefoot" and "used to have blue eyes but they're sort of old blue-green cat's eyes now."
Until she broke her hip, Big Ruby "could dance everyone clear off the dance floor, Everywhere I went I had a ball. I was not a closet drinker," Her robust enthusiasms include quite a cross-section; Martha Mitchell was a "good old drinking buddy. I loved her." Talullah Bankhead: "She and I drank Jack Daniels together;" Passing a picture of David Hartmann at Channel 5: "He was so nice. But Cornelia wouldn't let me talk about the tapes. I had to be so prim and proper." She snorts, as she recalls how prim and proper she was. "That was the only time I was every tacky on TV." She much prefers letting fly with a joke about how much George Wallace despised her. "People said if George ever got in bed with me he'd get up and walk ."
Queen Juliana had a "great personality," and "Mizzz Roosevelt once invited me to a party." Bess Truman had the "best laugh I ever heard." Rosalynn Carter wasn't faring too well yesterday; "Rosalynn wouldn't see Cornelia this trip," she sniffs. And him (Carter) running for office, We're politically prominent. Hell, I've got political pull and you better believe it."
Big Ruby always wanted to be "5-foot-2-eyes-of-blue and a movie star." In her youth, women took to behind-the-scenes roles in southern politics, if at all. She shows no bitterness about this -- but lets it be known that she helped get her brother elected governor.
Her dreams for her daughter did not include politics. "I wanted her to be a movie star all her life. MGM wanted her. She was studying voice with Carlo Menotti when her father died and she came home and didn't want to go back to New York. She could have been a fine singer, but she ended up in politics, like her momma."
And where will be road end for Big Ruby and Cornelia?
Cornelia would like to have a political talk show and an outlet for writing. Big Ruby once wrote a column -- "I hate bragging on myself, but after I turned it over to someone else, no papers wanted it." She would like to write a book about her life.
As for alcohol, she says with a twinkle in her eye, probably the most unrepentant alcoholic around, "When I die, instead of a lily in my hand, give me some branch water and Jack Daniels, and they'll all know I died happy,"
Will she stay sober?
Dr. Catanzaro says: "Her chances are much better now than before because of the family involvement. What will happen, the Lord only knows."